Everyone has a favorite jazz standard. Actually, "favorite" doesn't go far enough. I mean a standard so overwhelmingly beautiful that it compels you to buy entire albums because the song is on there. The standard that makes me go weak in the wallet is Moonlight in Vermont. Published in 1944 by the West Coast songwriting team Karl Suessdorf (music) and John Blackburn (lyrics), the tune was quickly brought to the attention of Johnny Mercer, who had just started Capitol Records two years earlier.
According to Sheila Davis' Craft of Lyric Writing, the duo chose the song's title for a reason: "Lyricist John Blackburn told me that he and his collaborator, Karl Suessdorf picked the title because they thought a state song, if it is a hit, will last as long as the state."
What makes Moonlight in Vermont so delightful—in addition to its sighing melody line and leaf-covered bridge—is that none of the lyric lines rhyme. Highly unusual for a song in 1944, and a big risk, since most singers would have trouble remembering a narrative song with lyrics that didn't rhyme.
Sheila Davis continues in the Craft of Lyric Writing:
"John Blackburn recalls the process of creativity in 1944: 'After completing the first 12 bars of the lyric, I realized there was no rhyme and then said to Karl, Let’s follow the pattern of no rhyme throughout the song.' Obviously [the approach] was right. The song is a standard. Read the lyric aloud and try to identify the alternative chiming devices that [lyricist] Blackburn used in place of end rhyme. The fullest verbal echo is the [song's] title itself, placed strongly in the final line of all three A sections."
John Duffy, in the Vermont Encyclopedia notes that Blackburn and Suessdorf were not native Vermonters, and only Blackburn had a connection to the state, having taught drama for two years at Bennington College in the 1930s. The song was written in L.A., and when Johnny Mercer heard it, he immediately thought it would be perfect for Margaret Whiting, who was signed to the label and was a family friend of the Mercers.
Whiting's father was Richard Whiting [pictured], a popular song composer who had collaborated with Mercer on several songs starting in 1937. Their joint efforts included Too Marvelous for Words and Hooray for Hollywood. The Whitings socialized with Mercer, and Margaret had sung for him when she was 7 years old. Then in 1938, Richard died suddenly of a heart attack at age 46. When Mercer started Capitol Records in 1942, Margaret was one of the first singers signed to the label, recording her earliest song in July of that year with the Billy Butterfield Orchestra.
Mercer put her together with trumpeter Butterfield again for Moonlight in Vermont in July 1945. Gene Lees, in Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer, quotes Whiting on the making of the record:
"Johnny Mercer [pictured] called me down and he sang the song, and Paul Weston was playing it. He said, 'What do you think?' I said it’s gorgeous...When Johnny found Moonlight in Vermont for me, he never brought up the fact that it didn't rhyme, and I didn’t think about it for many years.'
(He also might have pointed out that the front strain of the hit does not contain a verb, nor do its two repeats; only the release contains verbs.)
I said, 'A calendar with a church in the snow.'
He said, 'There are more images.'
He said, 'I want you to think of those pictures. I want you to think of the coming of spring. I want you to think of summer, people swimming and people walking, people having a lovely time outdoors.'
So we go in and record it, and I’m envisioning all these pictures. It gave me something to go on. That’s what he taught me; and that’s what [Frank] Loesser taught me. Pick up that sheet music and look at those lyrics and make them mean something. Read the lyric aloud, over and over and over. Recite it until you get it. Your own natural instincts will tell you."
But there was a small glitch during the read-through by Whiting. According to Philip Furla’s Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer:
“When Whiting got to the line, 'Ski tows down a mountainside,' Whiting panicked, saying she had no idea what a ski tow looked like. Mercer got on the phone and called the two songwriters and asked them if he could change the line to 'Ski trails down a mountainside.' Both men were happy to make the change." [Pictured: Mercer and Whiting]
Interestingly, Whiting's 1945 version opens with a strong reference to Bunny Berigan's I Can't Get Started, with Butterfield delivering a trumpet solo after the orchestra's dramatic sustained downbeat. In fact, the tribute is so strong, you think at first the song is I Can't Get Started. The arrangement ends with Butterfield using a mute to parrot Whiting's phrasing.
When the record came out, it sold more than 1 million copies, establishing Whiting as a hit maker and the song as a bankable standard for singers and jazz artists alike. According to Tom Lord's Jazz Discography, 446 jazz versions of the song have been recorded to date.
So now that you know my album weakness, here are 12 of my favorite versions, in order:
1. Irene Kral with Maynard Ferguson—Boy With Lots of Brass (1957)
3. Sarah Vaughan—No Count Sarah (1958)
4. Nat King Cole—The Unforgettable (1947)
6.Gil Melle—Patterns in Jazz (1956)
7. Gerry Mulligan—The Gerry Mulligan Quartet: Paris Concert (1954)
9. Les Brown—Best of the Capitol Years (1956)
10. Frank Rosolino—Frankly Speaking! (1955)
12. Margaret Whiting—The Complete Capitol Hits (1945)